It’s not clear exactly when photographer Mike Ehrmann snapped this photograph of San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. We know it was taken Tuesday night, sometime during the Spurs loss to the Miami Heat, but it’s unclear during what quarter it was taken, much less what specific play prompted such a sullen reaction from the incessantly cheery Popovich. There’s a temptation to assume it came during the 3rd quarter, during which the Heat outscored the Spurs 39-14, but it’s entirely believable that a minor error during a more competitive period of the game would elicit a similar reaction from Coach Pop.
Photographing a coach is wholly unlike photographing a player. Like the man himself, photographs of the coach are more divorced from the action. Although this photograph is uniquely unspecific — without the date or caption provided by Getty, it’s unclear if the Spurs are even playing at home or away — most any photograph of a coach will offer few hints as to what was going on elsewhere on the court when the photograph was taken. Of the cast of characters populating these nightly dramas, coaches can be some of the most expressive — in some sense the coaches are the only ones whose articulated task is to express themselves — and yet why they look anguished or angry or overjoyed is often uncertain.
In this instance, Ehrmann has captured a rather poignant moment. Popovich is being very expressive but he is not expressing himself. His gesture and gaze are turned inward. It’s not clear whether he’s deep in thought or merely taking a moment to manage the emotional fallout of an especially erratic performance by his team. Either way, what he’s not doing is actively trying to communicate anything to his players or assistants. (Although given what a respected coach he is, a frustrated sigh may be all he needs to get his point across at times.) He’s not calling a play, offering words of encouragement or pointing out an error. If anything, the photo gives the false impression that he’s not even watching the game.
The photographer is tapping into something very distinct and powerful about photography: It’s a more effective medium for capturing the pain of loss than joy.
Loss breeds a form of entropy. Losers tend to freeze in shock, or collapse and lay prone on the floor. They sit, staring out at nothing, or hang their head and walk slowly. The pain of loss reveals itself through wrinkled foreheads and closed eyelids. There’s an entire blog dedicated to capturing the looks on peoples faces when they lose. In general, expressions of failure are small and subtle.
Joy, on the other hand, is bigger. It’s endowed with a certain momentum, a sense of forward movement that derives not only from the excitement surrounding the moment but optimism regarding the future. People jump and hug, pump their fists and high-five one another. It’s far more physically dynamic than the sluggishness that results from loss, and for that reason the emotions (and body) of a person who’s just failed tend to fit more neatly within the edges of a photograph. That’s not to say there aren’t some brilliant photographs of people celebrating, but in some sense what makes them so brilliant is how hard it can be to capture those moments elegantly.
Although different for countless, plainly obvious reasons, this photograph does have one similarity to the one we considered last week — the photograph does a better job capturing the moment than video does. However, last week that conclusion was a bit counterintuitive, while in this instance it makes plenty of sense. (There’s probably not even footage of this moment, or even if there is, how could we tell?)
I referred to coaches as characters earlier, but for most of the performance they serve as directors, not actors. At times coaches throw themselves onto the stage, for instance when they march onto the court to bark at a referee. But for most of the game they stalk the sidelines near the top of the television screen, arms folded, silently scrutinizing the game at hand. They are, by nature, a bit neurotic: For coaches, the game is an obsession, no detail to small to be considered.
And yet so many of their reactions are lost, cut off by the edge of your TV. The television camera mostly offers us a portrait of the coach at his most angry. The photographer gives us a window into the far more common, far quieter moments of frustration they all feel.